By Paniz Khosroshahy
In the last few years, sexual assault has regularly received media coverage, with stories about Jian Ghomeshi, Brock Turner, Nate Parker, Donald Trump, Gerry Sklavounos, Mustapha Uruyar and countless campus sexual assault cases. While these stories may pop up on your feeds time to time, their impact on those who have experienced the violence discussed in these articles is much graver than you think. In fact, for a survivor, interacting with the media can be quite challenging.
Often, many well-intentioned journalists lack the sensitivity required to approach people who have experienced sexual violence and re-traumatize them with their words and actions. As a journalist myself, I know very well what it’s like to have deadlines, strict editors, little power over your work or wanting to establish yourself by a certain brand in the industry. I also know that, as a person who speaks publicly about having experienced sexual violence, none of these justifies harming people even further. To that end, I have compiled 16 tips to ethical reporting on sexual violence in order to make 2017 a better year for those coming forward.
1. Understand why survivors come forward
Often, those coming forward have two main elements in common: first, their cases involve grievances against powerful parties and institutions that have subjected them to violation, traumatization, silencing and mistreatment. Secondly, every other avenue to justice has failed them.
A person who has experienced sexual violence may have also been through a lot before talking to you - legal battles, mental health challenges, dropping out of school or leaving their workplace. Speaking up is not a decision made lightly; if a minority of people take their case to law enforcement, even less want to make “rape victim” the first thing popping up when their name is Googled. Survivors would not be talking to you if they didn’t absolutely have to.
2. Acknowledge and understand your power.
Being a journalist means having a platform, and with that platform comes the power to spread information and shape discourse, and with this power comes a great deal of responsibility do these things ethically. Survivors often rely on journalists’ platform to seek justice, and this reliance creates a power imbalance between survivors and journalists, regardless of a journalist's personal experience of sexual violence.
Survivors come forward to draw attention to a wrongdoing. While for you this may be just another assignment or byline, for many, you are their last hope for justice. Ensure that your words and behaviours are informed by the existence of this power imbalance.
3. Survivors’ lives revolve around more than sexual violence
My life is shaped by my experience of sexism and sexual violence as much as it is also impacted by racism, Islamophobia, Orientalism and heteronormativity. I have many, many thoughts on every single one of those topics, but the “perfect victim” is not supposed to to have an opinion other than “rape sucks.” Otherwise, they would be “too controversial” or “unsellable” for a rape story.
While editors and board members of publications may have the ultimate power over determining media representation, journalists also need to be held accountable for who they choose to present to their editors in the first place. You are responsible to make a case for covering all survivors, not just those whose tone and views you agree with.
4. Most journalists covering sexual violence are white. Not all survivors are.
White journalists need to be extra cautious of their privilege and power when talking to survivors of colour. As a white journalist, there may be things you’ve never considered —such as lack of trust in law enforcement and dependence on abusive men for immigration status. Be compassionate and do not judge. Read up on the topic and try to understand. Portray the survivor’s experience in their own words and do not associate their decisions to the flaws of their culture.
5. Ensure the interview is as comfortable as possible.
You’re essentially asking people to relive some of the most traumatic moments of their life for your story. There are many ways to make the interview more comfortable. For example, in a pre-interview email or phone call, tell survivors what you’re going to ask them so they can mentally prepare. If needed, break the interview into two sections to do at different times. If they prefer, have them send you the timeline of events pertinent to their case beforehand.
6. Survivors don’t owe you their time
Once a journalist approached me to connect her with people and give her information about a certain incident. Due to prior negative experience with her, I declined her request. She insisted on talking to me, saying that that if I didn’t talk to her, the continuation of sexual violence was somehow my fault.
You are not entitled to survivors’ time and energy because of your power as a journalist. There’s a plethora of reasons someone may not want to talk to you. They may be in danger or not ready to talk. Do not spam their emails and voicemail.
7. Do not, for the love of god, ask “so, what happened?”
While some survivors may be comfortable with sharing the gory details of their rape, others aren’t. Do not feel entitled to these details simply because you are a journalist, even if it’s off-the-record. I have lost count of the number of times I have been made to feel like the bad person for wanting to keep these details private or the times I have been guilt-tripped to disclosing them anyways.
As much as you are obligated to ensure the factuality of your story, you are also obligated to respect the boundaries of your interview subjects—remember, their boundaries have already been crossed. If someone has expressed their wish to not disclose, ask instead if they are more comfortable communicating that information in written form. If not, ask if there are other details you may need to know or if they expect other details to surface when the story is published.
8. Do not assume a hierarchy between different words
Do not, by default, assume that everyone wants to be called a “survivor”, or that “survivor” is necessarily a superior or “more feminist” word compared to its alternatives. Mirror the language the survivor uses and do not use “rape” and “sexual assault” interchangeably for style. People have a variety of reasons for their choice of words. If someone is reluctant to tell you their exact reasoning, and you absolutely have to know, remember that they do not owe you their time.
9. Carefully think who you consider newsworthy
The coverage given to survivors are often governed by a rape victim hierarchy. At the top are white, heterosexual, conventionally attractive women who have either been assaulted by powerful men, reported to the police pending trial or have sued their university or workplace. These are the survivors you often see in newspapers and on TV.
Not everyone has the privilege, money, education and resources to climb to the top of this hierarchy. Do your best to amplify those voices, and if you can’t due to restraints set by your editors, communicate that with your subject early on and think of what other platforms that would.
10. Be wary of reproducing abusive dynamics survivors have experienced
Many survivors often come forward after experiencing institutional betrayal from their university, workplace or another community they belong to. Be careful to not reproduce those dynamics in your relationship with survivors. This could be like ghosting after a pre-interview for a radio show, placing their picture next to that of their abuser or pressuring them to disclose certain information. For example, due to my own experience with my university administration, I often get very triggered when I’m being kept in the dark without being given proper information about an important situation.
11. If covering support mechanisms in institutions, include perspective of survivors
If, for example, a university has passed a sexual assault policy, do not go straight to administrators and student representatives—often the most powerful students in the university —for comment and call it a day. For the token “rape victim quote,” do not by default refer to the sexual assault centre on campus.
There is always a reason certain students can shake the hands of administrators at the policymaking table while some survivors fail their classes or drop out, and there is always a reason some are not involved in groups that supposedly represent them. Find out why. Nationally, there is a troubling trend of the monopolization of the media narrative by a select few members of universities or organizations. Instead of taking the easy route, read student media and find ordinary students on social media to dig deeper under the facade powerful students and administrators have built.
12. Don’t expect to photograph survivors according to your idea of what they should look like.
I was asked by a photographer for a publication to not smile, because apparently “the subject matter is serious.” I was instructed to cross my arms and “look neutral.” Let’s be clear: I know better than anyone else that sexual violence is serious. Moreover, nobody consents to having their face attached to a rape story without prior consideration. So respect those considerations, and do not project your own preconceived notions of what trauma should look like.
13. Communicate about the details of the story.
Inform survivors about the nature of the story you’re producing. Will their picture have to be taken? Is the interview for a larger story or is it only focused on their case? When and where will it be published? Will their account be published alongside their abusers’? Will it be online? Could it be on the front page? Do not give survivors unnecessary anxiety by claiming that the story could be bigger than what it actually would.
Most importantly, could it be that this interview would never result in a story? If you’re only testing the waters, your subjects deserve to know early on to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to put themselves through a difficult interview that could not have any benefits for them.
14. Follow up after the interview
You become another person that has harmed survivors if you milk them for details and insight but never follow up. Going public is incredibly nerve-wracking. To make the anticipation for the publication of the story easier, update survivors regularly.
15. Check in after publication
For many, being your school’s “campus rape poster child” and watching the most traumatic moments of your life dissected on the Internet can be very difficult. It may be over for you, but for survivors, the story doesn’t end after publication. Check in with survivors to see how they are doing. Is there any support you can offer? Are they threatened to be sued for defamation? Are other parties speaking against them? If the comments on the article are getting too violent, can you close commenting? Can you use your social media presence to express your support?
16. If you screw up, own up
Your editor decided to cut a survivor’s part in your story or not go with it? There wasn’t enough space? You had to focus on only a couple of survivors and naturally focused on those higher up the rape victim hierarchy?
I have often felt exploited by journalists who have used my insight and my contacts for their story with no benefit or credit to me. This behaviour was painfully reminiscent of the abuse I have already experienced. Nothing justifies this.
Hopefully, by putting the prior points into practice, you’d never get to this point. But if you did, remember: survivors are talking to you in the first place as a means to seek accountability. Do not be another irresponsible and indifferent asshole. Own your mistake, apologize and try to alleviate the harm you’ve done. This is not a one-way street, and you can’t just get your feminist journalism awards and fancy bylines by climbing on the shoulders of those already marginalized. For many survivors, you are their last hope for justice, and that’s not a responsibility to take lightly.
Paniz is a women's studies major at McGill. She often writes about race, Middle East, Orientalism, gender and sexual violence. Her writing has been featured on The Establishment, GUTS Magazine, Rabble, Gal-dem and more. Follow her @panizkoochooloo.